Introducing Dr. Minna Woo – BBDC’s New Director

September 19, 2022
By Krista Lamb

photo of Minna WooIn August 2022, the Banting & Best Diabetes Centre was pleased to welcome Dr. Minna Woo as our new Director.

Dr. Woo is the first woman and the first person of colour to ever hold this role, a fact she does not take lightly. “I’ve been an independent researcher for over 20 years, and in the first 10 years, I was just so busy trying to survive that I didn’t really think of doing anything like this. But in the last 10 years especially, and in my current leadership role as Division Director [of the Division of Endocrinology at UHN/SHS] I’m recognizing how important it is,” she says, explaining how grateful she is for the many mentor leaders who have been advocating for the importance of equity, diversity and inclusion in science. Both strong woman leaders and male allies have allowed for more women to aspire to leadership positions and act as role models for younger women in STEM careers.

“I’m ecstatic that I get to be that face because I think it’s more powerful than any words or missions. When I was growing up there weren’t as many minority women in leadership, so that’s why it took so long for me to wrap my head around, ‘Can I do this?’. Because if there’s no one like you that you’ve admired or looked up to, you unintentionally put up a roadblock.”

Dr. Woo looks forward to bringing her unique perspective to the BBDC, which has played a critical role in her own successes as a scientist. “I’ve always been a huge beneficiary of the BBDC. It’s a very unique institute that’s Toronto-wide and it really is the only institute here that brings the whole diabetes community together,” she says. “From my very early days as an independent researcher, this is where I got my support and my funds; this is where I first learned to do peer review.”

Now, she hopes to bring the community together even more, as she works to create programming that showcases how diabetes is infused in all areas of research. “The bottom line is diabetes is incredibly complex. I know this firsthand, because I spend a full day a week caring for those with diabetes, and it’s just incredibly challenging in so many different ways. Not just clinical management, but also how little we understand the disease in some ways. And it’s, very ironically, juxtaposed against this incredibly fast-moving science. And that’s where the BBDC sits,” Dr. Woo explains. “Everything is moving at such an incredible pace, and there has to be more dialogue and intersection. There is diabetes in every corner of hospital care. Few patients come in just with diabetes. They are almost always affected by other diseases or conditions. It’s such a major problem. Every challenge that’s context-dependent is different in terms of what’s needed, be it transplant, or pregnancy or cancer care, or cardiovascular. I mean, you name it, diabetes is there. And it’s very, very challenging.”

This infinite complexity of the condition is part of what fuels Dr. Woo’s interest in diabetes research. She is also inspired by the patients she sees in her clinical practice. “When I started my research, I felt that all of my 10 years of training in medicine didn’t even matter. My grants and my research proposals seemed to have very little to do with patient care. I felt at times disadvantaged compared to my full-time research colleagues who had all those years that they dedicated to science. But now I feel the complete opposite. I’m actually bolder in terms of holistic thinking, and embracing the complexity of diabetes. And I’m always trying to put that context to whatever I do, be it in cultured cells or in a genetic mouse model. I’m always inspired by an array of information from clinical trials to stories from my patients, and that’s what really counts in the end.”

The constant transition between physician and scientist will no doubt serve Dr. Woo well as she works to advance diabetes research at the University of Toronto and beyond.